Chronicles of Friendship

Artistic Friends

After their sojourns in Brittany, both artists returned to the UK with numerous friends they had encountered.

The artistic community in the UK at this time was not very large, and many of the friends that Lavery or Osborne made during their years as working painters were also friends with other artists.

They had many friends in common, and must have had a passing idea of whom the other man was, but as far as we know, they never met.

Their chances of crossing paths increased when John Lavery began exhibiting his work at the Royal Hibernian Academy in Dublin in 1900, however Walter Osborne’s death three years later dissolved that chance once and for all.

The Pont-Aven artists colony and other Breton villages was where many contemporary artists painted and lived together.

Osborne joined the coterie in 1883 and gained much experience, and along with the other artists he imbibed the surroundings, as described by Henry Jones Thaddeus:

“a tranquil sleepy village, with one long street, terminating in a bridge over the Aven; the villagers, in their picturesque Breton costumes, providing the distinctive note so highly prized by painters […] comprising of nationalities and representing every school of painting, the cosmopolitan crowd devotes itself equally to the spoiling of canvas to a through enjoyment of open-air life.”
(Sheehy, p18.1973)

Several of the Irish artists became friends:

Nathaniel Hill

Goose Girls in a Breton Farmyard | Nathaniel Hill | 1884 | AIB Art Collection | PD

Nathaniel Hill was born in Drogheda, Co Louth and like Osborne spent time living and painting in Brittany. 

His painting Goose Girls in a Breton Farmyard depicts the same farmyard in Port-Aven that features in A Grey Morning in a Breton Farmyard by Walter Osborne.

Whilst Osborne and his companions such as Nathaniel Hill and Roderic O’Conor were based in Brittany, in particular Pont-Aven, another group of painters, including John Lavery, were being inspired by the riverside villages near Fontainebleau such as Barbizon and Grez-sur-Loing.

One of these, Frank O’Meara,  was primarily an Impressionist painter influenced by plein-air, and many of his paintings include the grey misty light associated with river mist.

O’Meara is said to have been one of Lavery’s closest friends during his time at the artistic colony at Grez-sur-Loing.

Frank O’Meara

The Widow | Frank O’Meara | 1882 | Hugh Lane Gallery Municipal Art Gallery | NC-NoC

By all accounts O’Meara was a relatively slow painter and for this reason his body of work is quite small.

This painting, The Widow was  donated to the Hugh Lane Gallery by Lavery. It is likely that the male figure featured in On the Bridge at Grez by Lavery,  is his friend Frank O’ Meara. 

“I must compliment you on the work I saw of yours in London at Suffolk Street and Art Club.

You have made a big stride of late and there is nothing like making progress, it quite makes life worth living.”
Frank O’Meara in correspondence with Lavery following his exhibition in 1887 , McConkey, Kenneth,
Sir John Lavery, 1993, p.47

On the Bridge at Grez | Sir John Lavery | 1884 | Private Collection

This painting by John Lavery was one of many Lavery painted on and around the old bridge at Grez.

Many of the artists who resided in the Breton village found inspiration when watching the river flow under the bridge.

In this painting it is most likely O’Meara whom Lavery has painted leaning jauntily against the wall, a canvas by his side implying that, before he was distracted by the women to his right, O’Meara was also painting from the town’s most popular vantage point. 

Dermod O’Brien

The Fine Art Academy | Dermod O’Brien | 1890 | PD

Born near Foynes in County Limerick, Dermod O’Brien was a portrait and landscape artist.

After a year studying paintings in the Louvre, he enrolled in the Antwerp Academy under Charles Verlat.

A contemporary of Walter Osborne, he also studied at the Academie Julian in Paris. After studying further in London, he returned to Dublin and set himself up as a portrait artist.   

Nellie O’Brien | Walter Osborne | 1887| Private Collection | PD

Walter Osborne and Dermod O’Brien were good friends and it has been suggested that Dermod’s sister Nellie was a close female acquaintance of Osborne.

Following Osborne’s death in 1903, Dermod competed with Sarah Purser for the title of Dublin’s leading portrait artist.

J.B.S MacIlwaine

One of Osborne’s closest friends and confidants was his fellow painter John Bedell Stanford Macllwaine (born 1857).

Osborne and Macllwaine met when they were both studying at the RHA school under the tutelage of Augustus Burke.

Macllwaine was primarily a landscape painter, but also an inventor and he lived at a property known as Stanford House in Foxrock.

Osborne and MacIlwaine painted together frequently, setting out on painting and sketching exhibitions across the countryside.

The first known and  dated portrait by Walter Osborne was that of his friend MacIlwaine, however the work was destroyed during the Easter Rising of 1916.

Portrait of J.B.S MacIlwaine, Artist and Inventor | Walter Osborne | 1892 | National Gallery of Ireland | PD

Osborne’s second portrait of MacIlwaine is his most well known, and is widely considered Walter Osborne’s best portrait.

The work, currently part of the National Gallery of Ireland collection shows MacIlwaine seated in his garden, one of his dogs sitting dutifully by his side.

Every care is taken in the detail of the work, from clothing to the faint but approving smile of Osborne’s sitter. The artists were very dear friends, and their friendship is apparent in this relaxed, natural portrait. 

The Glasgow Boys

On his return to Glasgow after his stay at  Grez-sur-Loing, Lavery and his contemporaries, inspired by Bastien-Lepage and the french Naturalist movements, gained recognition for their different style of painting.

This group of young artists were known for their rejection of the traditional academy style of painting.

They were modernists in that they moved away from historically inspired pieces and painted everyday rural scenes using natural light. Collectively this group of young painters was known as the ‘Glasgow Boys’.

Despite their title they were not restricted by location, but were an outward looking collective influenced by painting in the Netherlands and France and especially the work of Jules Bastien-Lepage.

The formation of the Glasgow Art Club gave artists a place to exhibit their work.  

Spring | Thomas Millie Dow |1886 | Private Collection | PD

Ariadne | Sir John Lavery | c1887 | Present whereabouts unknown | PD

Thomas Millie Dow studied in Paris at the same time as Lavery, was part of the group of artists based in Grez-sur-Loing and was also one of the ‘Glasgow Boys’. This painting Spring has characteristics of the ‘Glasgow Boys’ in the French realist elements and a nod to Whistler, and there is an ethereal or classical theme to the subject.

At nearly the same time John Lavery was painting a series of paintings with the theme of Ariadne. There are visible similarities to Dow’s painting.

Winston Churchill and Michael Collins

“It was on the prompting of his wife…that Lavery began to ponder more deeply the question of national allegiance”
(McConkey, Sir John Lavery, p.152)

Although born in Belfast, John Lavery spent the majority of his early years living and working in Glasgow, and from there he went to London.

He started exhibiting annually at the RHA in 1901, but had very little to do with the Irish art world until his marriage to Hazel Trudeau.

Born to Irish-American emigrants from Galway, Hazel felt a deep kinship with Ireland, and it was her influence that sparked Lavery’s latent interest in his homeland and its increasingly fervent revolutionary upheaval.

During treaty negotiations in London, John and Hazel Lavery famously hosted dinners with members of both the Irish and English sides of the debate, including their neighbour in Cromwell Place, Winston Churchill and representative of the Irish Republic,  Michael Collins.

Lavery painted many portraits of Nationalist movement members during this period, asking them to stop by his studio for portraits. These were not commissions and appeared to come from a place of passion and interest. 

The Lavery’s and Churchill’s were friends and neighbours in London. Both had houses on Cromwell Place and Winston Churchill often joined John Lavery in his studio to learn from the professional painter.

Their friendship endured throughout the rest of their respective lives.

Sir Winston Churchill Painting | Sir John Lavery | 1915 | © Historic Royal Palaces

Portrait of the delegate Winston Churchill | Sir John Lavery |c1921 | © Felix Rosenstiel’s Widow & Son Ltd on behalf of the estate of Sir John Lavery

Portrait of Irish Delegate Michael Collins | c1921| Sir John Lavery | © National Archives of Ireland courtesy of Felix Rosenstiel’s Widow & Son Ltd., London on behalf of the Estate of Sir John Lavery

Given their opposite views it was somewhat surprising that Lavery could be friends with both Churchill and Collins, but despite their different political views, both Collins and Churchill respected each other as men, and found common ground inside the Lavery home.

“He was an irish patriot, true and fearless”
Winston Churchill on Michael Collins (Churchill, The World Crisis: The Aftermath, First published 1923-31)

Sarah Purser

Born in Kingstown (now Dún Laoghaire) in 1848, Sarah Purser was an artist, a close friend, distant relative and confidante of Walter Osborne. Recognised mostly for her portrait painting and later her stained glass work, Purser was shrewd from a young age, self-funding her attendance at the Academie Julian in Paris in 1878.

She was the first female elected as a full member of the Royal Hibernian Academy in 1924.

Both Purser and Osborne were founding members of the Dublin Arts Club in 1886 and corresponded by letter when Osborne travelled through Europe to Madrid.

Sarah Purser was also involved in the development of the Hugh Lane Gallery and encouraged the state to buy Charlemont House to house of the Dublin City Gallery, Hugh Lane Gallery

Portrait of a Lady (Sarah Purser) | Walter Osborne | 1887 | PD

Hugh Lane

“It has been a great shock to me…as he was one of our few geniuses and I hoped for still greater things from his brush.”
Hugh Lane in a letter to Sarah Purser after the death of Walter Osborne (Hugh Lane, 1904, via IrishTimes August 5, 2000)

Both Lavery and Osborne were acquainted with Hugh Lane, an Irish art dealer who was the founder of the Dublin Municipal Gallery of Modern Art in 1908 (the first known public gallery of modern art in the world). He was appointed as Director of the National Gallery of Ireland in 1914. 

Hugh Lane died in 1915 on board the RMS Lusitania when it sank off the coast of Ireland. 

In 1935 Sir John Lavery bequeathed a number of paintings to the Dublin Municipal Gallery of Modern Art (now known as Dublin City Gallery The Hugh Lane) in memory of his late wife Hazel.

William Leech

A Convent Garden, Brittany | William John Leech | c.1913 | © National Gallery of Ireland

In this work Leech’s first wife Elizabeth poses as a novice nun from a convent in Brittany.

The plein-air style of this work, as well as the impressionist use of light and shade is similar to many works by his mentor Walter Osborne. 

In 1900, living back in Dublin, Osborne began to teach painting at the RHA School.

One of his many students was William Leech.

Born in 1881 Leech would go on to study painting at the Academie Julian in Paris before travelling and working in Brittany and England.

Leech was elected as a full member of the RHA in 1910. Leech believed that Osborne taught him everything he needed to know about painting.

“He was the best teacher I ever had. At the Academie Julian, I didn’t need to listen.

I just carried on doing what Walter Osborne taught me.”
William Leech (via Karen Reihill for Adam’s 2008)


Chapter 1:

The Ordinary & The Extraordinary

Chapter 2:

Forming the Artist

Chapter 4:
Human Face Divine

Chapter 5:

New Worlds

Chapter 6:

End of an Era